A baker’s dozen: Story collections for fiction writers

David James Poissant shares his top picks for short story collections.
By David James Poissant | Published: May 29, 2014


PoissantDavidJames (c) Ashley Inguanta

Photo by Ashley Inguanta

In the July issue of The Writer, David James Poissant explains how short stories evolve from first drafts to publication, an art he himself has mastered: his work has appeared in The Atlantic, Playboy, One Story and Glimmer Train. Below, he recommends these top 13 short story collections for aspiring fiction writers.

1. Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
This smart, dark, funny collection changed the way I thought about fiction. Moore is the master of getting you laughing, then pulling the rug out from under you in a way that leaves you in real tears by a story’s end.

2. Raymond Carver: Collected Stories
Whether you’re a fan of the earlier, [Gordan] Lish-edited Carver or the later, more expansive Carver, or, like me, both, there is much to love in this collection.

3. Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins
Her story “The Past Perfect, the Past Continuous, the Simple Past” is among the finest stories I’ve ever read.

4. Corpus Christi: Stories by Bret Anthony Johnston
Learning to write, I read this collection over and over. Every story is tremendous, and the generosity of heart and spirit that Johnston extends to his characters is rivaled by few writers working today.

5. The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley
The title novella in this collection is a masterpiece. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to be a fiction writer.

6. George Saunders, all the books
It’s hard to put into words how much I love Saunders. I came to him late and resisted his work for a while. I came around, learned how to read him, and now I’m hooked. Saunders gets deeper into his characters’ heads than any writer I’ve ever read. And the empathy that he shows his flawed characters is unparalleled. A tremendous writer, and a gift to the short story form.

7. The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
These stories are diamond-sharp, and every one will cut you. If you want to learn how to really chisel a sentence into something that shines, read Amy Hempel.

8. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
Many people know the brilliant, much-anthologized story “Brownies” from this collection, but my favorite is “Speaking in Tongues,” a long, breathtaking coming of age story. A remarkable book.

9. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
An exquisite collection. My favorite story here is “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration,” the story of a family on the Oregon Trail in which the family patriarch just happens to be a minotaur. Required reading for any writer interested in the surreal.

10. Head: Stories by William Tester
I can’t seem to find many writers who know this book, but it’s devastating and insanely good. These frightening stories will stick with you. Tester is a master of pacing and of suspense, and the narrative voice of these stories is sharp as razor wire.

11. The Hermit’s Story by Rick Bass
I love each of Bass’s collections, but this one is signature Bass; every story perfect. The imagery here will haunt you long after you’ve finished the book.

12. A Better Angel by Chris Adrian
These stories are daring. They risk everything, and those risks pay huge returns in surprise, emotion and joy for the reader. The stories are terrifying and jubilant, voice- and image-driven. Astonishing.

13. In This Light by Melanie Rae Thon
A beautiful, striking collection of Thon’s best stories. “Xmas, Jamaica Plain” is my favorite short story ever written. Period. May this book stay in print forever.

David James Poissant’s first collection of short stories, The Heaven of Animals, is available in bookstores now.